2.2 Touring the Hexagon

2.2.1 Alenby and Le Commissaire Sailland, alias Curnonsky

Le Commissaire's Office, Prison Fernand Point, Richelieu

About 12 noon Monday 4 May 1987

           Alenby had no sooner stepped into the old-fashioned doorway of Prison Fernand Point and placed a lean--formerly plump--forefinger on the worn, brass-framed ivory of the bell button, than he smelled danger. Prison Fernand Point might put on a very nice lunch, but as he'd been warned it was still, after all, a prison. Might joining Curnonsky on his tour of the Hexagon entail risk of living out one's life in captivity? He hesitated, but suddenly it was too late to back out--for a spasm of disquiet, transmitted to his finger, had set off a clanging of the bell within. The door swung open, and a stolid, black-uniformed human of indeterminate gender guided him through an ornately furnished anteroom to the private office of le Commissaire Sailland, alias Curnonsky.

"Baron! Welcome, welcome!" piped the dapper, immensely elderly little man, popping up from behind an enormous desk. "I am happy to shee you, Baron, my dear shap!" Leaning on a cane, he hobbled rapidly across the room, a tiny claw-like hand extended in welcome. He spoke fluent English, though with a mushy pronunciation due, apparently, to a complete lack of teeth. This did not trouble Alenby in the least, for he recognized in the other a man of his own mind, whom he understood at a level deeper than words.

Nor was Alenby displeased to be addressed as Baron--he was in truth a little bored with Excellency--but he was disconcerted by the Commissaire's evident awareness of his part in the PROFATPOL roadblock fiasco. Still, he recovered his aplomb in time to avoid being outdone in the honorifics department. "Prince," he murmured, gently grasping the proffered hand while taking care to stand politely on tippy-toes.

"As you were, my dear shap, as you were!" commanded the little man with a grandiloquent flourish of his cane. "You may call me Curnonsky...."

"Curnonsky, le prince des gastronomes...."

"The shame," said Curnonsky, obviously gratified, and he went on: "I have reason to believe that you are familiar with the working of the horshless carriage? Yes, then you will accompany me on a tour of the Hexagon! You will drive the Rolls. I will navigate, using an annotated copy of my 'La France Gastronomique.'"

"Ah, 'La France Gastronomique'! Your finest work, Prince, the finest to emerge from the glory days of the 1920s, and one treasured by all true gourmets. But with the advent of Prohibition and so on and so forth, isn't it a little out of date?"

"No, Baron, the spirit of la Belle France, as expressed in the art of cuisine, is eternal. It has not been destroyed by the abominations you mention, it has simply been forced clandestine, underground as you say in English. When Prohibition will have been abrogated, as it will be because it goes against human nature, then La France Gastronomique will emerge unchanged, light and lively as a soufflé au citron fresh from the oven. But for the time being it bides its time, hidden away from the vulgar horde that would put health--health!--ahead of culinary art. Hidden away, but not from the cognoscenti. For its quiet retreats and secret places are still where I described in my magnum opus. It will will be a pleasure, Baron, to lead you to their delectation, the ultimate pleasures of the table. Let us then begin!" With that the Prince of Gastronomes led the Red Baron to a garage that held their means of travel around the hexagon.

Alenby was glad to see that it was not a Rolls Royce he'd be driving, but an inconspicuous PROFATPOL workhorse and an icon of the automotive engineering of his youth--a black 1966 Peuget. He did not immediately remember the unorthodox gate sequence of the Peugeot's gears, but as soon as he took his place behind the wheel it all came back to him. He felt surge of optimism as he set the machine in motion....

But he also felt misgivings. They were about to set out on a tour of the Hexagon, which to him meant the gamut of all that mattered to a francophile gourmet, from the white asparagus of Alsace to the pipérade of the Pays Basque, the cheese of the Alps to the fruits de mer of the Atlantic coast, the ailoli of Provence to the butter of Normandy. The Commissaire, it seemed, had made no provision for such a long journey.

Questioned on that point, Curnonsky explained that with great age comes a great diminution of one's ability in worldly undertakings, and a corresponding dampening of one's ambition. In recent decades, his vision of life's playground, the Hexagon, had contracted to exactly one location--the garden home of la belle laide, the ugly beauty Lucrezia, source for the most exquisite tid bits to titillate the palate of man. "Bear north, my dear shap," he commanded, "bear north, and make hasht to the river isle Bouchard, and beyond!"

 Following the little man's directions,  Alenby brought the Peugeot to a halt at the porte cochère of a large, outwardly decrepit old estate, and was astonished to recognize the familiar outlines of Château Mourey. And equally astonished that the victualler to Prison Fernand Point's vaunted larder could be none other than Professor Ducru's housekeeper, Lucrezia.

2.2.2 In the Garden of Château Mourey

Early pm 4 May 1987

"Now we must guesh the fracking password," said Curnonsky, speaking with uncharacteristic vehemence. "I am fatigued with Professhor Ducru and his silly puzzles--"

Alenby did not reply, but acting on a sudden inspiration, he typed in "CURNONSKY," and upon receiving his employer's nod of commendation he pressed the "APPLY" button. The grand carillon sounded and the gates swung open. Alenby drove through and, guided by the gestures of a short, muscular man whom he took to be Jules César, the estate's factotum, he  turned left into a large orchard and vegetable garden to the side and rear of the main building.

Lucrezia was waiting for them--a short, square-built, weather-beaten woman in a heavy black apron and high boots, tenderly nursing an object that looked like the sort of wine skin favored by fashion-conscious hikers in the foothills of the Alps, except entirely coated with feathers--duck feathers, presumably, for the object she held was in fact a recently decapitated duck. She held the neck so as to direct the still-pulsing outflow of the corpse's blood into a stainless steel bucket.

"Ah, Curnonsky," she said, and her wrinkled face relaxed into an empathetic smile. "Lucrezia!" he responded, getting out of the car and hobbling rapidly to her. For a moment the two stood close to each other, wearing expressions of deep regard for each other, and also mutual regard for the defunct bird. Then Lucrezia abruptly turned away and took the bird and the bucket with her to a nearby garden shed.

"She needs a little time alone with Julie," Curnonsky explained. "To grieve. Also to pluck her, of course."

"Julie?" said Alenby. Not being familiar with grief nor with duck--at least ducks still with feathers on, he felt slightly out of his depth. But realizing that Julie was the name of the departed, recovered quickly: "To pluck, and also to eviscerate the ah, the said Julie, I assume."

"Oh no, Baron. No no no!" said Curnonsky, scandalized at this misconception. "Pluck yes, but not to eviscerate. The evisceration of a fatted duck is the sacred province of the chef, meaning in our case His Extreme Lowness Jean Troisgros. The slightest mishandling of Julie's liver, a delicate structure plumped up little by little throughout her short life by her daily diet of the finest high-fructose maïs supplemented by slightly over-ripe Moroccan apricots, could result in a serious leakage of--ah, here is the lovely Lucrezia with Julie and a flagon of her ultra-high cholesterol blood. We must carry away this treasure--and a dozen of Julie's admirable eggs to boot--at all deliberate speed, away to Prison Fernand Point!"

***

On the return trip to Richelieu, Alenby was hard pressed to keep his mind on the road. The wording of the Commissaire's reference to the prison's chef Jean Troisgros--"in our case"--inspired in him an agonizing muddle of hope and fear. Suppose Curnonsky invited him to stay for a light snack of sautéed foie gras with scrambled eggs--Julie's liver, Julie's eggs--how should he respond? Such a nosh, whipped up by the great Jean Troisgros, ranked in Alenby's mind as an artistic achievement of the order of a triple fugue extemporized by the likes of Johan Sebastian Bach. To fork up that trembling curd of foie gras-imbued scrambled duck's egg could be the experience a lifetime. But there were serious risks, like prison a door clanging shut on his relatively tame yet agreeable life at large. And he might pay the price for an indulgence in gourmandise too soon after fasting--the last and perhaps the least of CHAOS AND OUCH but still damnably unpleasant: hemorrhoids.

2.2.3 Alenby Takes Steps

En Route from Prison Fernand Point to Château Mourey

Late pm, Monday 4 May 1987

Curnonsky did indeed ask Alenby if he would care for the snack of the kind he'd imagined, and he had his answer ready: a polite negative. However, he accepted with pleasure the Commissaire's invitation to again serve as his chauffeur on his tour of  the Hexagon the following Monday and the Monday after that, and so on indefinitely. Thus it was settled; Alenby had a steady job practicing his skills both culinary and automotive. Buoyed by this development, and undeterred by a change of the day from sunshine to sullen rain-clouds, he embarked with a jaunty stride on the twenty-kilometer tramp back to Château Mourey.

His euphoria faded when he faced reality.  A forty kilometer round-trip commute called for a set of wheels, and for the first time in his life when he needed wheels, none were available. He'd already dismissed the thought of driving the red Mercedes--PROFATPOL would nab him for sure. A hire car? No, one needed to pay by credit card, and he didn't have a credit card that would work in u. One of those 1CV golf-cart things, or a bicycle? Ditto.

Walking? Impractical--the twenty kilometers each way between Château Mourey and Prison Fernand Point would take up a far larger part of each Monday than the tour of the Hexagon does.

There was just one solution to the commute problem--running.

Running was one of those sweaty activities he'd never cared for. The athletics coach at Rowan Hamilton Academy had urged him to give it a try, pointing out that his physical characteristics pertinent to distance-running--thick-muscled thighs tapering to slim ankles--easily outweighed a slight tendency to knock-knees.  He'd opted for the swim team, anyway. But that was then. Now, he knew he had to take the sweatier route.

By this time he'd walked through the town of Richelieu and turned right on to the level turf of the pedestrian path leading north-east to l'Ile Bouchard. He started running.

After a few minutes he felt at each step a jolt of pain as his heel struck the ground. He walked for a time, and the pain in his heels diminished to some degree. He resumed running, and the heel pain came back, though with diminished intensity. Once warmed up and sweating freely, however, he had another problem--his feet hurt all over, as if they had expanded to the point of bursting out of his thin-soled Italian leather shoes. He took the shoes off, and his woolen socks, and stuffed them in the lower side pockets of his Harris tweed jacket. What a relief! He struggled on, alternating running and walking, still feeling pain from bruised heels and the soft underside of feet unused to contact with a surface harsher than superfine merino.

He still felt pain, but oddly enough--so his thoughts ran--it had not occurred to him to reach into his jacket  pocket for a med like guaranteed to produce swift, sure and safe relief. It seemed that in the course of his month in Prison Simone Weil he'd broken away from his deeply ingrained habits of health maintenance. He still believed that his mainstay analgesic, Ipüpoften, would relieve his distress, but now he took into account the possibility that its usual side effect might cause even more distress in the form of a hurried visit to the überdüngermischmaschine at the next rest stop. He struggled on, without so much as touching his meds pocket. 

Other runners passed him, most of them barefoot, some in groups laughing and chatting sociably, all loping easily on the balls of their feet. He tried to imitate their action, but succeeded only to shift the pain center from heel to instep.

The rain came, at times heavy. He leaned into the downpour so that his Homburg took the brunt of it. But his clothes were soon saturated. The sodden flannel of his slacks clung to his knees, forced him to slow to a walk. Runners streamed past him, exulting in their prowess, facing the sky with mouths open to the raindrops.

It was dark by the time he arrived at Château Mourey. He was exhausted, his feet hurt abominably, and he was tormented by fears of the near future. Could he run so far again, and the same distance home again, all in one day? What about his flannels--soaked baggy at the knees, and quite possibly blood-spattered from his lacerated soles, could they recover from such usage?  He lacked the energy to guess at a password, so he simply keyed in the one he'd used before. Just that afternoon, though it seemed long ago: CURNONSKY. The gates swung open.

 

 

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